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Understanding lymphatic filariasis


[FILES] NTDs, namely: onchocerciasis, lymphatic filariasis, trachoma, schistosomiasis and soil transmitted helminths.<br />

Lymphatic Filariasis, considered globally as a neglected tropical disease (NTD), is a parasitic disease caused by microscopic, thread-like worms. The adult worms only live in the human lymph system. The lymph system maintains the body’s fluid balance and fights infections. Mosquitoes spread lymphatic filariasis from person to person

People with the disease can suffer from lymphedema and elephantiasis and in men, swelling of the scrotum, called hydrocele. Lymphatic filariasis is a leading cause of permanent disability worldwide. Communities frequently shun and reject women and men disfigured by the disease. Affected people frequently are unable to work because of their disability, and this harms their families and their communities.


Sign and symptoms
Although the parasite damages the lymph system, most infected people have no symptoms and will never develop clinical symptoms. These people do not know they have lymphatic filariasis unless tested. A small percentage of persons will develop lymphedema. This is caused by fluid collection because of the improper functioning of the lymph system resulting in swelling. This mostly affects the legs, but can also occur in the arms, breasts, and genitalia. Most people develop these symptoms years after being infected.

The swelling and the decreased function of the lymph system make it difficult for the body to fight germs and infections. These people will have more bacterial infections in the skin and lymph system. This causes hardening and thickening of the skin, which is called elephantiasis. Many of these bacterial infections can be prevented with appropriate skin hygiene as well as skin and wound care.

The standard method for diagnosing active infection is the identification of microfilariae in a blood smear by microscopic examination. The microfilariae that cause lymphatic filariasis circulates in the blood at night (called nocturnal periodicity). Blood collection should be done at night to coincide with the appearance of the microfilariae, and a thick smear should be made and stained with Giemsa or hematoxylin and eosin. For increased sensitivity, concentration techniques can be used.


Diethylcarbamazine (DEC) is the drug of choice in the United States. The drug kills the microfilariae and some of the adult worms. DEC has been used worldwide for more than 50 years. Because this infection is rare in the U.S., the drug is no longer approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and cannot be sold in the U.S. Physicians can obtain the medication from CDC after confirmed positive lab results. CDC gives the physicians the choice between 1 or 12-day treatment of DEC (6 mg/kg/day). One-day treatment is generally as effective as the 12-day regimen. DEC is generally well tolerated. Side effects are in general limited and depend on the number of microfilariae in the blood. The most common side effects are dizziness, nausea, fever, headache, or pain in muscles or joints.

DEC should not be administered to patients who may also have onchocerciasis as DEC can worsen onchocercal eye disease. In patients with loiasis, DEC can cause serious adverse reactions, including encephalopathy and death. The risk and severity of the adverse reactions are related to Loa loa microfilariae density.

In settings where onchoceriasis is present, Ivermectin is the drug of choice to treat LF.


Some studies have shown adult worm killing with treatment with doxycycline (200mg/day for 4–6 weeks).

The best way to prevent lymphatic filariasis is to avoid mosquito bites. The mosquitoes that carry the microscopic worms usually bite between the hours of dusk and dawn. If you live in an area with lymphatic filariasis:

At night
Sleep in an air-conditioned room or
Sleep under a mosquito net
Between dusk and dawn
Wear long sleeves and trousers and
Use mosquito repellent on exposed skin.


Another approach to prevention includes giving entire communities medicine that kills the microscopic worms — and controlling mosquitoes. Annual mass treatment reduces the level of microfilariae in the blood and thus, diminishes transmission of infection. This is the basis of the Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis.

Experts consider that lymphatic filariasis, a neglected tropical disease (NTD), can be eliminated globally and a global campaign to eliminate lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem is underway. The elimination strategy is based on the annual treatment of whole communities with combinations of drugs that kill the microfilariae. As a result of the generous contributions of these drugs by the companies that make them, hundreds of millions of people are being treated each year. Since these drugs also reduce levels of infection with intestinal worms, the benefits of treatment extend beyond lymphatic filariasis. Successful campaigns to eliminate lymphatic filariasis have taken place in China and other countries.


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